Saturday, 19 March 2016

Daredevil, Season 2 review (Part One)

"I caught a glimpse of heaven once. The Angels showed me. 
The idea was I'd kill for them. Clean up their mistakes on Earth. 
Eventually redeem myself.

Tried it. 
Didn't like it. 
Told them where to stick it."
                                      -- Frank Castle, Welcome Back, Frank 

Man, I loved the first season of Daredevil. Sure, there is definitely a dip midway through the season, and the showdown with Kingpin was pat, but overall it was a terrific piece of work.

With another change in backstage personnel (creator Drew Goddard was booted two episodes into the first season, and show runner Steven DeKnight left at the end of the season), I was intrigued at what Season 2 would bring us.

Without further ado, here are my rushed, unvarnished thoughts on Season 2...

Episode One: 'Bang'

This one starts at a clip. The opening sequence is terrific. No flashback to catch us up, no narration. Just a brief, brutal sequence in which Daredevil takes down a gang of bank robbers.

No beat is lingered on, and the filmmakers have the restraint to not indulge in a one-take punch-up ala Season One. All we get is a few shadows, the flash of a gauntlet to a noggin and a terse 'call 911'.

All in all, a great, economical re-intro to our hero climaxing in that most Daredevilish of locations: a church lit by candles.

Speaking of grand entrances, the introduction of the Punisher is even better. This is where the transfer to another medium really works to the character's advantage. The whole episode plays like a slow-burn reveal, as an unseen maniac plows through the gangs of Hell's Kitchen with extreme prejudice.

His appearance at the hospital is perfect -- the way he disarms the policeman and keeps walking is a great piece of short hand. In that one bit of action, we learn everything we need to about our new antagonist.

This is the first adaptation to treat the Punisher right. He is not a rich character with an arc -- he is not a character that you can build a traditional action franchise around. He is better as a counter-point to another character, and as a foil for Matt Murdock, the character has room to breathe.

In the end, this is a fairly tight episode that gets the ball rolling. There are a few pieces of dialogue which feel a little precious, but no complaints so far. No sign of Elektra, but that's to the good. It would have clogged up the episode (and the season) with too many characters competing for attention.  

Episode Two: "Dogs to a Gunfight"

With Matt out of action, it gives the other characters a chance to shine. Foggy's showdown with the DA is great, and is a sign that the writer's room is willing to flesh out the rest of the supporting cast. Here's hoping they take more chances with these guys.

This episode continues the restrained reveal of the Punisher. His scenes are relatively short and sparse on dialogue, which works for the character. One good beat is when he turns on the sleazy pawnshop owner, which feels straight out of his MAX series.

The writers don't treat him like a tortured soul. Here, he is more like Jaws -- rarely seen, but always lurking on the periphery.

In terms of structure, this episode does feel a little more of a bridge between the first and third episodes. Aside from the DA, nothing new is introduced. It feels a little like the new show runners are still getting the hang of things, but there is a slackness to the overall flow of the episode when compared with the season premiere.

Episode Three: 'New York's Finest'

This episode is basically two men yelling on a rooftop. Okay, there's more to it than that, but for a good portion of the runtime this episode feels like a two-hander, which gives the characters a chance to develop a dynamic based on their conflicting philosophies. 

Interestingly, the episode boils down to two parallel standoffs: Frank vs Matt and Foggy vs two gang members in hospital. Foggy Nelson gets another chance to show what a fighter he is, and endears himself to Claire Temple. Rosario Dawson makes a welcome return as the night nurse -- here's hoping she gets more appearances. It's always a pleasure, and she always delivers.

The final fight is great -- sure, it's a reprise of Season 1's hallway scuffle, but the location and stakes make it more than just a carbon copy. Daredevil puts an unconscious Frank in a service elevator and then battles his way down a stairwell to meet at the ground floor. Excessive? A little. It certainly hammers the point home that while Matt may not kill, he will do everything but.

Episode Four: 'Penny and Dime'

If John Wick taught us one thing, it's not to mess with a man's dog.

This series has a good way of filling out its supporting antagonists, but Irish mobster Finn is a little weak sauce. On the plus side, he does get a decent introduction, with an impromptu eye gouge, but overall the character has more than a whiff of the 'lucky charms' about him.

This is the one episode that feels short-changed. The montage showing the Irish tracking Frank down is cool, but the way they find his apartment feels too easy (especially after Daredevil did the same thing a few episodes back). I was expecting some kind of security mechanism to trip them up -- a booby trap or something. 

However, while the build up feels abridged, this episode does provide some sweet Punishment. 

The showdown with the Irish is good value -- we get to see how messed up Frank really is, and the amount of pain he is willing to take just to piss Finn off.

The creepiest part is not even the torture scene: it's Karen's investigation of the Castle house, unchanged since his family died. it's an eerie, effective sequence that conveys Frank's pain better than all three of his theatrical outings.

Beranthal's final monologue is a great button on his origin. The lack of flashbacks are big help -- they are a cliche of revenge stories, and the more restrained approach makes Castle feel more relatable.

The final scene with Karen and Matt in the rain was a little overwrought in the sound design and direction. The close-ups of Matt's finger tracing up Karen's arm, intercut with her new-orgasmic reactions is unintentionally hilarious.

It was so over-the-top, it actually made me hope they did not get together.

On the plus side, we finally get a look at Season 2's other heavy hitter...

Episode Five: 'Kinbaku'

Five in and the first flashback of the season. Nice work.

This episode made me realise that, aside from his other senses, Matt  has 'sex-dar' -- he is able to pick out Elektra by the clink of her bracelet. Insane.

Elodie Yung's Elektra -- hmm, interesting. I haven't read too many Daredevil comics so I'm not really clued in on her character, but Yung's iteration is arresting. She's more of a femme fatale than Jennifer Garner's iteration from the 2003 picture, which makes for a more interesting rapport with Charlie Cox.

I really enjoyed the flashbacks -- Matt and Elektra's bond is based on danger and excitement, and their bout in the ring was a good way of symbolising their relationship. With her erratic, thrill-seeking behaviour and eroticisation of violence, Yung felt like a spiritual sister to GoldenEye's Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen). 

Less than an episode in and Elektra's taken over the show. Good thing Beranthal is on hiatus -- the emphasis here is on a the broken carcass of Matt and Elektra's relationship: it's gross, it's messy and very fun to watch.

There's a dark sense of fun to this episode that has been missing from the 'Castle' episodes. It's a result of the differences between their characters, but one which confirmed, for me at least, the limitations of the Punisher's appeal: Depthless rage is fine, but only in small doses. Elektra is running on a few other fuels -- batshit crazy being the most obvious.

The last couple episodes have felt kind a loose, but this one felt really tight. The addition of Elektra feels like the completion of a moral triangle, with Matt and Frank Castle as the other points.

The finale in her penthouse is fantastically noirish, with Elektra's red night gown stark against shadows. It also signals the arrival of that most noir of plot points -- the uneasy alliance between the fall guy and the femme fatale.

It's a cool dynamic. Let's see how far the writers take it.

Episode Six: 'Regrets Only'

This episode made me laugh -- not out loud mind, but there is a nice vein of schadenfreude running through this episode. Having Elektra around gives the show something's it's been missing: anarchy.

The way she keeps dragging Matt into the middle of danger is glorious. Matt is so stoic and solemn by himself -- he needs someone to spark off (that's why Foggy is around). It is probably why Matt and Karen don't make sense to me -- they feel cut from the same damp, dull cloth.

The Lecter-like security around Castle's room is a nice touch. The DA, Reyes, is a nice spin on the Big Bad (one of them at least) -- politically motivated, her grasp of justice is somewhat shaky, to say the least. She's a nice addition to the rogue's gallery. It will be interesting to see just how tied in she is to the mystery around Frank's past.

Back to the lady (and man) in red: Two episodes in and the Elektra-Matt dynamic has me hooked. When they stroll into the ball room, it just feels right -- like we've been watching five seasons of these two, not a couple of episodes. Chalk it up to solid writing and chemistry between the actors.

Yung's French-English accent is very reminiscent of Eva Green. Combined with the suit-and-tie locale, and the heist aspect of this episode, I started wondering what Charlie Cox would be like as James Bond. Interesting possibility. 

But the fun must end. The shadow of Frank Castle's trial looms large as the credits roll.

Episode Seven: 'Semper Fidelis'

This episode is pretty effective at oscillating between the Frank and Elektra storylines, but it also highlights an underlying flaw: the lack of one, definable antagonist. The tension does not feel as taut as it should be -- the constant back-and-forth means the two storylines suck up too much oxygen for either to work as well as they could. 

Once Elektra starts interfering with Castle's trial, the two storylines begin to mesh -- her actions are finally starting to affect Matt's 'daylight' existence -- but there's needs to be more ties.

This episode has one of my favourite action movie cliches: beaten all to hell, our heroes strip down and tend to each other's wounds. Thankfully, it does not lead to the horizontal mambo -- a cliche too far, and the current dynamic between Matt and Elektra is much more interesting without the hanky panky.

Enough monkey business. Into court. 

Matt's continued truancy pays dividends for Foggy. Elden Henson has always been great as the comic relief, but ever since the middle of last season (the 'Murdock v. Nelson' episode), he has been given more opportunities to really flesh out Foggy in interesting ways.

His opening statement to court is great, and forces the character to show his mettle -- Foggy is far from being Matt's wingman. He's a character to root for.

The finale, with a rather brutal standoff between Daredevil and Elektra, is a nice escalation. After a couple episodes of making nice, it was past time for Elektra's BS to trigger a reaction from old Red. Thankfully, he does not do a Jake the Muss, and takes his rage out on some people who deserve it.

This leads to another Yakuza beatdown and a really big hole. So now we have two mysteries to solve:

a) who covered up the deaths of Frank Castle's family?

b) why are the Japanese Mob (or the Hand, or whoever they are) digging this big hole?

Talk about some cliffhangers!

Overall thoughts

Pretty good so far -- the dual antagonists approach is a little awkward, but Beranthal and Yung are worthy additions. However the show has a Fisk sized hole in the bad guy corner. How about Silvermane, the Rose or the Black Tarantula (thank you Wikipedia)?

The supporting players are getting more to do (give Foggy his own show!), the action is solid (if a tad repetitive) and the Frank Castle trial looks set to lead to all sorts of upsets and plot twists.

Anyway, there are six more episodes to go, and it feels like all the pieces are in place for a crackerjack finale.

Check back soon to find out my thoughts on the rest of Season 2...

PS If you are waiting for the next part of my Russ Meyer retrospective, don't worry. It's on the way. 

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